Tom Burton: who is the modern mandarin? An ever-evolving profession

The role of the modern Australian public servant has changed significantly since the 1960s and ’70s. And not always for the better, writes The Mandarin‘s publisher.

The scholarly bureaucrats, known as the mandarins, who ruled China for over 1300 years from the sixth century, knew about the need to adapt public leadership to the needs of the times. During that period, China absorbed the period of European colonialism, digested evangelising Christianity, combated multiple invaders, while managing the biggest population of any nation known to humanity.

The role of Australia’s Mandarins — the public heads who lead our federal, state and local government departments, utilities, programs and regulators — has changed significantly from when prime ministerial permanent secretary Sir John Bunting, public service chief Allen Cooley, Treasury boss Fred Wheeler and Defence secretary Arthur Tange ruled Canberra in the 1960s and ’70s. Things were sorted by this small coterie often at lunch at the Commonwealth Club, down by the lake at Yarralumla.

These were the days of so-called fearless advice. Strong independent departmental secretaries who told ministers what they sometimes did not want to hear. In Canberra, and in the state capitals, ministers worked in small offices, with just one or two administrative staff, meaning the secretary had an almost exclusive role as adviser to their minister.

While the wives of the former (and mostly male) mandarins still play tennis at the Commonwealth Club, the role of the modern agency head has changed dramatically as the challenges of modern government have created a very different polity than the one when Bunting and co. ruled Canberra.

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